SHU Crew doesn’t mess around. We do work. And when I say we do work, I mean that the 10 members of Seton Hill University’s community made a huge difference in countless people’s lives during our time in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA).
I like to think of our group as the SHU equivalent of the 1980s cult classic, “Breakfast Club.” Comprised of two “white and nerdy” professors (Geoff Atkinson and Diana Hoover), one food service director (Darren Achtezhn), one graduate turned part-time art department employee (David McGhee),three seniors more than eager to graduate (Catherine Goetz, Nicholas Sterner and myself) and three sophomores who were just “lovin’ life” (Cody Burch, Emily Franicola and Jacqueline Yanchuck).
During our week in NOLA, we volunteered one day for a local chapter of ARC, a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding “people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” and four days on a Habitat for Humanity work site where we worked alongside a future homeowner and 25 other volunteers.
“The most rewarding part of the trip was meeting Cesar, who we were building the house [for] and knowing that everything I did, no matter how small, helped him own a house he otherwise may not have been able to buy,” said sophomore math major Jackie Yanchuck.
At first glance, our deeds may not seem like much, but every little bit makes a huge impact on the NOLA community.
I cannot begin to convey the emotional toll this journey played on each of us. Although we shared countless inside jokes and laughter, our surroundings often brought us back down from our natural highs. At times, I felt slightly guilty for my happiness when I was surrounded by poverty.
And yet, even with suffering, the French Quarter—the heart of NOLA–was as lively as it ever has been. Local talent, ranging from musicians to jugglers to live statues populated the streets. One day in the French Quarter and it was clear to all of us that the citizens of New Orleans have no plans of giving up hope of complete restoration.
From the moment we entered the city and its outskirts, we could see remnants of the hurricane’s damage. Diana Hoover, advisor of the Griffins @ Work Club and assistant professor of chemistry, pointed out that many of the large grassy sandlots positioned right next to houses were once structures as well, but in many cases, the owners had no means for renovating their properties.
For David McGhee, graduate and studio art technician, the most humbling aspect of our journey was witnessing development in progress within NOLA. Before the trip, McGhee questioned why the citizens of NOLA were not back up on their feet.
“After seeing the area and talking to the people who live there, I understand that it is not a matter of just starting again but building a completely new society and that does not happen over night without the help of others,” he said.
Both Geoff Atkinson, assistant professor of mathematics, and Hoover were humbled by the similar experiences.
But there is hope. In fact, our crew stayed at a beautifully renovated middle school turned volunteer base camp known as Camp Hope. During our week long stay, we shared close quarters with six other schools, which accounted for over 150 students and volunteers.
One of the most influential aspects of the journey were the people, really characters, that we met along the way. Take Jafar for example, the young hippie in charge of the farm at the ARC facility who was so passionate about his work that he seemed to be in every area of the multi-acre lot at the same time. As a side note, he couldn’t seem to get his own background history straight, as he told three different members of our group three different locations where he was originally from: Minnesota, Oregon and Missouri respectively.
The two women in charge of our work site on Magnolia Street in the suburbs of New Orleans were truly inspirational as well. Nicole and Kerin, who were both in their mid-20s, were wise beyond their years. It was empowering to watch Nicole climb through the framing of the roof to reach the top rather than use the traditional method–a ladder. Moreover, the two, who, like Jafar, seemed to be everywhere all at once, were non-intimidating and would patiently explain job processes to all newbie workers, myself included.
Another man who remained dear to our hearts through the length of our stay in NOLA was Ed, affectionately nicknamed “Vernie” by Cat, simply because he had traveled alone from Vermont to donate his time and knowledge to Habitat for Humanities.
As I mentioned at the start of this reflection, SHU Crew doesn’t mess around. For Hoover, the most rewarding aspect of this journey is the opportunity to work with students. According to Hoover, she is “always very, very proud of our students when we work with Habitat for Humanity….We are there to work, we work very hard, and we usually don’t stop until the job is done or [until] someone at the work site tells us it’s time to leave!”
Hoover was a key player in the strength and dedication of our group. On day one, she broke her glasses when a stubborn branch released from the brush pile we were breaking down and smacked her in the face. Not only did the branch snap the right leg of her glasses clear off, it also scraped Hoover’s face just above the eyebrow, drawing blood. Did Hoover quit, admit defeat?
After searching in vain for several minutes for the leg of her glasses, which was now hidden in the brush, Hoover grabbed a random twig and disappeared for a few minutes. Upon her return, we found her sporting what looked like a perfectly fine pair of glasses, complete with twig and tape. Talk about efficiency.
To give readers a better understanding of just how dedicated our crew is, just take a look at the images on these pages. We set out with a mission to change lives and in the process we also changed our own. During the week, we shared our experiences throughout the day during evening reflections. These ranged from choosing a single emotional word and applying it to an experience to moving through a rope maze blindfolded while being encouraged to raise your hand if you need help.
Each reflection, instrumented by Darren and two members of the group, were designed to teach life lessons and further our appreciate of the journey. The aim for the blindfolding was to limit our amount of stubbornness. For Darren, though, the reflection that sticks out in his mind most was the puzzle reflection conducted by Emily and himself. It exemplified successful team work. We “[worked] together on the bigger picture; everybody has something to contribute. And the missing piece—though we worked hard, the work is not done and that piece represents the work others will do,” he said.
To put it simply, the SHU Habitat for Humanity was quite possibly the best experience of my college career. Nick Sterner put it perfectly: “My biggest regret from this habitat trip is waiting until my senior year to go. This trip is an eye opening experience that gives you a sense of accomplishment and creates strong friendships with those on the trip with you.”
Do yourself a favor and sign up for next year’s trip while there is still space available. It fills up quickly, mostly because word gets around that the trip is life changing and it definitely beats staying at home during spring break. The lasting friendships and memories developed over the course of our week in NOLA will forever hold a special place in my heart as well as the city itself.
If nothing else, this trip gives students the opportunity to visit somewhere new for a very affordable price. And, believe it or not, it’s actually fun to work for 8 hours on houses for Habitat. And, you’d be surprised how much free time we had for activities after hours. Some of our fondest memories were made hanging out in D-Man’s trailer during quiet hours. The days seemed to extend forever and by the end of the week, many of us were plotting ways to return as members of Americorps during the summer and after graduation. Yeah, it’s that life-changing. This is SHU Crew. We don’t mess around.